Shopping For C Melody Saxes
by Paul D. Race
Shopping for C Melody saxophones (and their little brothers, the C Soprano) is different from shopping for any other kind of sax. Only a relative handful have been made since 1930, which forces most potential buyers into the following choices:
- Buy a 70- to 100-year old antique that looks like it could be restored, or
- Buy a 70- to 100-year old antique that someone else has already “restored,” whatever that means. (The horn to the right is a restored Lyone and Healy “stencil,” which was originally made by Beuscher.)
- Track down a new Chinese off-brand model and hope you get one that is playable enough to see if you like C horns before it falls apart.
- Track down a C Melody from Aquilasax, a small New Zealand company whose new Chinese-made horns received some good reviews, but which went out of business sometime in 2015.
Some of the older horns were built like tanks, and many buyers would rather take their chances on an ancient veteran that was a pro horn in its time.
That said, shopping for vintage saxophones is not for the faint of heart. There are bargains and there are outright ripoffs.
It’s also not for folks who don’t already play. if you don’t play saxophone and you think it would be fun to learn on a vintage instrument, think again. Learning saxophone is one thing. Owning a vintage saxophone is something else. And the two don’t work together as well as you might think.
The Rise of C Saxophones
The original saxophones were designed to supplement orchestral woodwinds like the Alto and Bass Clarinet. They were pitched in C and F so the players could read string or French Horn scores easily. They also had fairly narrow bores (tube diameters) compared to later saxes. (My Buescher-built Selmer New York C Melody, with the original mouthpiece, was a lot like playing a bass clarinet.) But saxophones never really caught on in orchestra. Where they did catch on was in wind bands, such as marching bands, where Bb and Eb instruments vastly outnumbered the C instruments. So Eb Alto and Bb Tenor saxes were made, with larger bores and bells, so they could compete in volume with trumpets and trombones.
But all was not lost for the C Saxophones. By the early 1920s, folks realized that their quieter nature helped keep them from drowning out guitars, mandolins and other parlor instruments. The small-bored C saxes were resurrected as “C Melody” saxes because that’s what most people played on them - the melody line from typical sheet music of the day. Back in 1900, popular songs didn’t spread through recordings or radio broadcasts; they spread through sheet music that you could go into the store and try out, then take home and learn. And while you were playing it on the piano, a C Melody or C Soprano owner could look over your shoulder and play the melody along with you.
Eb and Bb saxes were making waves in other venues, but C Melodies ruled the home saxophone market. All told, the saxophone became to the 1910s and 1920s what the electric guitar was to the 1960s - an oft-reviled, but driving, ubiquitous force in popular music of the day. Some authors credit the saxophone with the rise of the great musical instrument companies of the early and mid-20th century.
As a reference, the following picture shows the relative sizes and shapes of the Alto, C Melody and Tenor, respectively. You can see that the C melody (in the middle) is a little smaller than the Tenor and a little longer than the Alto.
This C Melody is what they call “Tenor” C melody, because it has a Tenor-style neck. However, you can see that the neck is almost as large as a “real” Tenor’s neck, which makes it seem disproportionately long compare to the body of the instruments.
Some C melodies (especially Conns) have a neck that looks more like an Alto’s neck, but you can see that the bell is relatively long and skinny compared to the bell on the Alto.
Finally, you will notice that only one of the lowest pads is on the right side of the horn (from the player’s point of view). This is a characteristic of all Alto, C Melody, and Tenor saxophones built between 1914 and 1926 (and a few built up until about 1932, which was, incidentally, about the last year C Melodies were built in Europe or North America.)
After that, most horns (except Selmer’s Paris models) had both of the lower pads on the left side of the bell until about 1967, when they started moving, together, to the right side of the bell. By about 1985, all the lines had moved both the low B and Bb pads to the right side of the bell, imitating Yamaha’s imitation of Selmer’s Paris-built horns. So if you see a saxophone with both pads on the same side of the bell, it’s not a vintage C Melody and probably not a C Melody at all.
Fast forward to the depression. The market for all saxophones dwindled, though public school and military bands kept some demand going for Eb and Bb horns. The market for C horns wasn’t so lucky. By now there were probably close to a million still-playable C Melodies in American homes, but most folks who still had homes, had stopped making their own music and started using the radio and phonograph. Facing a glut of instruments that were rarely being played, the manufacturers stopped making C Melodies altogether in the early 1930s.
There were still so many C Melodies around in the 1950s that some school and marching band music printed then still had a C Melody part, just in case. But the vast majority of marching band, school band, and orchestra music published since 1960 had no part at all for the horns. So they languished. Until a few years ago, when there was a bit of renewed interest on the part of:
- Guitar or keyboard players who wanted to add a saxophone to the band but didn’t want to learn the intricacies of transposing and or improvising.
- Saxophone players who wanted to join a guitar-based band and wanted to play from the same music (or chord sheets or lead sheets) as the rest of the band.
- Sax or clarinet players who wanted to join a church praise team and didn’t have the confidence or skill to transpose or improvise everything they played.
For more details on the history of C Melody Saxophones, you may check out:
Where Have All the Good Horns Gone?
20 years ago every pawn shop in the area had several C melodies they had taken in before WWII. I was a Tenor player who occasionally doubled on Alto, but I’d ask to see the C Melodies sometimes just to see if they’d make me a deal on a horn that nobody else had looked at for forty or sixty years. As a rule, the silverplate was black and the pads were white (40-60 years overdue for replacement). Every case was a heavy, battered, smelly write-off. None of that would have deterred me if the price had been fair. The big problem was that the pawn shops all wanted $500-700 for those neglected antiques, the same price they were getting for modern, playable Eb Altos and Bb Tenors, which, unlike the C Melodies were in demand. But at least I could get my hands on an instrument and determine if it would be possible to restore it to playing condition without exceptional costs.
A few years ago, when I got the idea of trying to find a restorable C melody for myself, I went back to those pawn shops, only to discover that the old C melodies had all disappeared. For all I know they were sold for scrap when the cost of copper went up. :-(
Nowadays, the only place I can find these consistently is on eBay and very occasionally on Craig’s List. I started looking at the eBay listings. For $100-200 you could get a basket case that was probably not repairable. For $150-300 you could get an old unrestored one that might be repairable. For $500-700, you could get one that looked just like the old ones but with new pads and a guarantee that it was “completely restored” right above the line about “no returns.” For $800-1600 you could get one that looked completely restored and according to the vendor was “like new.” To let you check for yourself, I have put an RSS feed that shows a sampling of live eBay ads for C melodies to the right of this section. That said, I’m not recommending that you buy any horn this way unless you really know what you’re doing and you’re buying from someone with a good return policy. I’ll be honest, I have only ever bought instruments on eBay whose advertisements, pricing, and return policy combined were “too good to be true.” In every case, I found something major wrong that the vendor must have known but did not bother to include in the ad. However, since I had paid bargain prices, it made more sense to keep the instrument and get it fixed than to return it and keep shopping. Your mileage will vary.
Again, if I could have gotten my hands on them, I would have known whether the $100 horn was really a basket case, or whether the $800 one was really restored or just cleaned up. I finally made a low-bid offer on a “completely restored” Buescher-built C melody stencil. To my surprise, I won the auction. There was a big mess in the lacquer that the seller didn’t bother to include in his photographs, and the “restorer” had used the cheapest possible pads, but the thing did what I needed it for, so I kept it long enough to try out thoroughly and use twice playing “out.” For that horn’s story, click here. Again, your mileage will vary.
Brands and Stencils
Through other research, I learned that legitimate manufactures Conn, Buescher, Martin, and King made most of the C melodies, even the ones with other brand names engraved on the bell, like Lyon and Healy or Wurlitzer. Today folks use the term “stencils” to describe early-20th-century saxophones that were made by one company but labeled for another. The manufacturers generally left off some feature(s) that made their brand-name horns especially desirable or identifiable. But stencil orders kept the factories humming when orders for their name-brand horns were down. And the stencil marketplace helped keep other factories from trying to get into the market at a lower price point. For more information on stencils, check out our What is a Stencil Saxophone? article
At the same time, several of the companies whose names commonly popped up on stencils - most notably Lyon and Healy - were real music instrument companies. They didn’t have the resources to make saxophones in quantity at an affordable price price point. But they made sure that their suppliers delivered quality products.
So most of the later Lyon and Healys, for example, were almost carbon copies of the equivalent Buescher True-Tone, except for cosmetic differences.
Unfortunately, during the peak years of the saxophone craze, a few lower-quality horns were made. Sadly, a number of less-reputable or ignorant eBay vendors today use confusion about stencil horns to declare that any old piece of questionable origin was really identical to a desirable piece. As far as I can tell, some of the manufacturers who ordered stencil horns changed suppliers every few years, so you can’t even always assume that a particular stencil was made by a particular company.
This is one reason I find the saxophone-oriented web sites with a lot of photographs so helpful - I can compare the listed stencil to a site with lots of photos and decide if the thing was really made by Conn, Buescher, Martin, or King, as the ad claims. One of the best collections of C horn photos is at the UK C Saxophone Archive.
In a few cases, the false claims are just ignorance - claiming that a Buescher stencil was made by Conn or vice versa is inaccurate, but since both Buesher and Conn had decent reputations, the value would be similar either way.
The point is, if you go shopping for one of these, don’t assume that a vendor’s claim that their instrument was really made by such-and-such manufacturer is necessarily true.
Is the Saxophone You’re Looking at Worth Restoring?
I claim elsewhere that the vast majority of saxophones made in Europe or the US could still be made playable today if someone wanted to invest the time, energy, and - in some cases - money. That said, not all “restorable” C Melodies are equally restorable or equally worth restoring. If you know for sure that the horn you’re looking at for $200 could be put into new condition for another $400, then at least you’d have a basis for a decision.
Do You Have Someone You trust to Restore It?
Before you start shopping at all, try to develop a good working relationship with a sax repair person who loves to take on a challenge. Some folks love taking on a good restoration project, as long as you don’t whine about the final cost. Others would rather spend their time straightening pinky keys and recorking necks and not getting their hands really dirty.
In my experience, the “mom-and-pop” stores that are owned by wind repair persons tend to have the most helpful attitudes toward restoration, while the big music stores that sell thousands of instruments a year to local band students are more likely to have the attitude that if an instrument is that far gone, you should write it off. Your mileage will vary, but a good relationship with a repair person who likes a challenge is a very good start.
In the best case, you might be able to run a few eBay listings past your repair person and ask them what they would charge for a repad and what that would include. If he or she says the instrument could be put into playing condition for X amount, assume that the rework will really cost 20% more than the quote, and add the total in your head to anything you see listed.
Is it Low Pitch?
When you get a look at a horn, look for the words Low Pitch or the initials LP under the serial number. A few horns made before 1906 were built to play a higher pitch than modern A-440 and will never play in tune for you. In addition, Conn, Buescher, and Martin all reengineered their saxophones between 1914 and 1920, so you will probably want to shop for a Conn “New Wonder,” a Buescher “True Tone,” or any Martin made after 1918.
Is it All There?
Second, see if any pieces are missing or damaged beyond repair. Most repair departments today don’t have a lot of loose C Melody pieces laying around, and fabricating a missing key could be prohibitively expensive.
Who Made It?
Third, look at the brand name. If it isn’t a Conn, Buescher, Martin, King, Evette & Schaeffer (Buffet Crampon), or Holton, you may be looking at a true off brand (probably not worth restoring) or a stencil (possibly worth restoring). I left Selmer off the short list, because the Selmer New York line was a stencil, usually made by Buescher, not a true Selmer (which will never say “New York”). On the other hand, if you do find a real, European-made Selmer C Melody, that’s a rare horn, probably worth restoring.
If the horn is a stencil, you can’t assume which manufacturer made it. But if you have many good photos or the horn in your hands, you may be able to figure it out. Our Stencil Saxophone List may give you a start in the right direction, though we can’t guarantee its accuracy or completeness. Another helpful resources is at the UK C Saxophone Archive site: their Manufacturers, Models, Stencils, and Serial Numbers page.
Once again, not all stencils are equivalent to the original manufacturer’s horns. But a stencil’s origin can indicate that it was made in an established factory by experienced people using professional tools. In the best case, your repair person may already be familiar with this manufacturer’s horns.
Evaluating an Unrestored 80-year-old Horn
For a long list of things you would ordinarily check on any used saxophone, please refer to our Evaluating Vintage Saxophones article. Because used C Melodies tend to be between 80 and 100 years old, we’ll assume that you’ll see heavy wear and that the horn will need at least a repad.
Here are typical issues you’ll encounter on a normally-aging C Melody - these don’t disqualify a good horn that is otherwise mechanically sound:
- Neck cork, pads, some springs, any felt pads and any other corks need replaced (mostly covered under a repad).
- Cosmetic plating or lacquer deterioration - horn may need cleaned up, buffed or polished, or lacquer may be largely scratched off, but there are no places where brass corrosion has bulged up through the finish.
- Finish wear-through on most of the pinky and palm keys, with no corrosion to speak of.
- Lots of dings on the bow (the curved part closest to the floor), but none that are deeper than 1/8”.
On the other hand, there are signs of abuse that will disqualify most horns as a cost-effective restoration project. If you have a truly classic horn that might be worth $1200 or more fixed up, these can be fixed. But most C Melodies don’t have these problems, so you might be better off moving on to the next horn.
- The bell is bent out of shape.
- Dings on the bow deeper than 1/4”.
- Rods have been bent out of shape (even if they’ve been bent back)
- Posts that have been knocked off and resoldered or that have been bent (especially if they distorted the body shape)
- Any sign that the neck has been bent.
- Evidence of much resoldering on the horn.
Saxophones are made out of brass that has some sort of protective covering to slow corrosion. To me, damaged or scratched finishes are cosmetic, unless brass corrosion has started to bulge through the finish or make holes in the horn. Not all finishes were shiny, so shiny isn’t always better. Lots of internet resellers, coming across a horn that was not shiny to start out with, will buff it up so it looks impressive in photos. And they like to say things like “finish 95% intact.” But a satin-finished horn that you couldn’t buff to a high shine without wearing off the plating might actually be in better shape, and it may be a better horn. So don’t be fooled by a good polish job.
Sometimes collectors who’ve found a classic horn will go to the extra expense of having a cosmetically damaged horn replated so that it really looks like new. This will add several hundred dollars to the price without adding anything to the tone of the horn. My Beuscher-built Selmer New York C Melody is an anomaly - it was originally silverplated, but before it came to me someone had it lacquered so that it looks a lot like, say, a 1950s student horn. The only value that added for me was that lacquer is lower maintenance than silverplate.
You can find more information about finishes in our Evalutating Vintage Saxophones article and in the UK C Saxophone Archive site’s C Melody Options, Finishes and Prices page.
Neck Shape Issues
One unique characteristic of C Melodies is that the shape of the neck is variable. For example, Bueschers and the earliest Conns had a crook’d neck like a Bb Tenor. Later Conns had a so-called “straight” neck like an Eb Alto. This has caused no end of confusion among amateurs who bought or advertised the former as Tenor Saxophones or the later as Alto Saxophones. In some circles, they divide C Melodies into “C Melody Alto” (with an Alto-shaped neck) and “C Melody Tenor” (with a Tenor-shaped neck). One fellow I know calls all C Melodies “C Tenors.” Technically they are only a step higher than Bb Tenor so he has a point. But they all use a bore based on Eb Alto designs, so I’m not sure I agree with that usage.
Regardless of neck shape, all C Melodies are in the same key, which means they’re all really the same kind of horn, just as a straight Soprano is essentially the same horn as a curved Soprano.
The shape of the neck can affect the tone - as one player has proved by swapping back and forth between different necks on the same Aquilasax horn. In the Aquilasax example, the “Alto” neck has a warmer sound, and the “Tenor” neck has an edgier sound. But in antique C Melodies, such comparisons would be “apples and oranges,” since most C Melodies will only accept the neck that was made for them, and many other differences come into play when you swap horns. As an aside, several C Melody experts prefer the sound of the better-quality Conns with the Alto-shaped neck to most other other models. But your mileage will vary, and depending on your circumstances, changes in mouthpieces will probably have more effect. And you may not even have access to those models.
To me the biggest difference the shape of the causes brings is the playing position. As a leftover from my rock band and praise band days, I prefer to play both my Eb Alto and my Bb Tenor out away from my body, a playing position that the C-Melodies with Alto-shaped necks support. But my crook’d neck Selmer New York C Melody (a Beuscher stencil identical to later Lyon and Healys) is uncomfortable to play unless I hold it close in and rest the low Eb pad protector against my right hip. That said, I can get a nice edgey sound that I would hate to sacrifice for a more comfortable playing position. Again, your mileage will vary, but I wanted to raise the issue because for some experts the neck shape “makes or breaks” the instrument, but for me it’s only one issue, and not necessarily the most important.
What about “Restored” Saxophones?
Most C Melodies that are mechanically sound can be restored to playing condition with a good cleaning, a repad, and the tweaking that goes along with the repad. You can always tell if a horn has been played since, say 1950 by the brown pads. If a sax is stored properly, leather pads will stay good for decades, so that horn may be as “restored” as you need it to be, as long as the leather is still soft.
On the other hand, when C Melodies started becoming popular again, a number of vendors started buying cheap horns, wiping them down, slapping in a $30 set of pads, and reselling the horn as “restored” or “reconditioned.” If the horn was in good condition to start with, that really may be all it needed. Or the vendor may have ignored bigger problems that he or she wasn’t equipped to handle.
If you know that you can get a restorable horn for $150-250, and get a good repad from a person you trust for $300-400, you’ll have to do your own math and investigate carefully before you pay $600 for a “restored” horn.
If someone has gone to the length of having a horn replated, chance are they did the other work “right.”
Here’s an irony - someone took the time to completely disassemble my Selmer New York horn and lacquer it, but they made a big mess at two points on the horn, and when they reassembled it, they used the cheapest possible pads. The horn did arrive in fine playing condition, and is technically worth what I paid, but I would not consider it a “fully restored” horn as it was advertised. It is an example of a “semi-restored” horn, which would probably have been better off without lacquer and with better (resonator) pads.
In other words, there’s “restored,” and there’s “restored.” Buyer beware.
I hope I haven’t taken all of the fun out of your quest for an affordable, but playable C melody horn. Personally, I like seeing these overlooked treasures dug out, fixed up, and played. I’m told that a few other historical band instrument companies are considering reintroducing their C Melodies as well. I would not be offended to see a C melody whose bore was more like a Bb Tenor than an Eb Alto, though. We’ll see.
If you have additions or corrections or additional examples you’d like to share, please contact us and we’ll get back to you as quickly as we can.
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.
Other articles you may find helpful include:
Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years. Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource. Others will just like to reminisce along with me. On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted © 2011-2014 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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